“A certain Person among the Greeks being a Candidate for some Office in the State, it was objected against him, That he was no Scholar. True, saith he, according to your Notion of Learning I am not; but I know how to make a poor City rich, and a small City great.”
IN EUROPE a “liberal” education, which would supposedly liberate a man from the narrow bounds of his time and place, was the property of an exclusive few. The traditional hallmark of liberal education insofar as there was any in 18th-century England—the “Bachelor of Arts” degree—was under Parliamentary authority awarded only by Oxford and Cambridge. This ancient clerical-aristocratic monopoly had, of course, preserved the learned tradition and produced many of the finest fruits of European thought. But the universities had been hothouses where only certain kinds of thinking could flourish. Their ancient walls had been doubly confining: they insulated the inmates from the general community, while they separated people outside from the community’s bookish wisdom.
True, there were signs of change in England in the 17th and 18th centuries. During the 17th century, especially after the Act of Uniformity (1662) had required all clergymen, college fellows, and schoolmasters to accept everything in the Book of Common Prayer, noncomformists set up their so-called “dissenting academies” to train a ministry of their own and to offer higher education to the children of dissenters. Much of English intellectual life then centered in associations like the Royal Society of London or was carried on by gentlemen in their country houses. All this tended to secularize and to broaden the currents of English thought. Still, at least until the early 19th century, the citadel of English learning remained in Oxford and Cambridge. Even if Gibbon’s familiar picture of an Oxford “steeped in port and prejudice” is a caricature, lethargy did fall upon the universities during the 18th century. But because of their ancient tradition, their endowments, their monopoly of degree-giving, their great and freely growing stock of books (under the licensing acts each of the two Universities received a copy of every book licensed in England), their power to publish (for much of the 17th and 18th centuries they were among the few printing agencies authorized outside London), and their control of avenues of political and ecclesiastical preferment, they were hard to dislodge from their dominion over English higher learning. The “democratizing” of English higher learning in the earlier 19th century did not occur through growth of the “dissenting academies” into universities; it came about mostly through liberalizing the religious tests for admission to Oxford or Cambridge, and through accepting more scholarship students. Even today Oxford and Cambridge link aristocracy and learning in English life.
But many facts, from the very beginning, shaped American life and diffused our collegiate education. Here we will observe only two.
First: The American legal vagueness and the blurring of distinctions between college and university helped break educational monopolies.
Although the origins of Oxford and Cambridge were shrouded in medieval mists, their control over higher learning in England came largely from their clear legal monopoly. Legally speaking, they were undeniably the only English Universities. Oxford in 1571 and Cambridge in 1573 had received charters of incorporation and held for all England the exclusive powers to grant degrees; their monopoly was complete until, after a struggle, the unorthodox London University was founded in 1827.
In England the distinction between “college” and “university” was always more or less sharp and significant: a college was primarily a place of residence or of instruction, largely self-governing, but without the power to give examinations or grant degrees; a university was a degree-granting institution of learning, usually offering instruction in one of the higher subjects of Law, Medicine, or Theology in addition to the Seven Liberal Arts and Philosophy, and possessing special legal authority (first in the form of a papal bull, later of a Royal or Parliamentary charter). Until the early 19th century, then, there were many English “colleges” but only two “universities,” Oxford and Cambridge. Efforts to found additional degree-granting institutions were repeatedly defeated. For example, Gresham College, founded in 1548, possessed seven professorships and eventually became a great center of learning in the form of the Royal Society of London; but it never became a university. The “dissenting academies,” which produced such figures as Daniel Defoe, Bishop Joseph Butler, Joseph Priestley, and Thomas Malthus, survived in the form of secondary schools (“public” schools) or theological institutions, but did not acquire the power to grant degrees.
The significance of all this for English life and learning, while complicated and not easy to define, was nevertheless persistent and pervasive. At least since the Age of Queen Elizabeth I, the universities have possessed a social prestige which has remained undiminished, or has perhaps even increased, with their academic decay. By the 18th century the lethargy of Oxford and Cambridge—like the collegiate rowdyism of American colleges in the early 20th century—had become a standing joke. “From the toil of reading, or thinking, or writing, they had absolved their conscience,” wrote the great Edward Gibbon of the fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford, about 1752. “Their conversation stagnated in a round of college business, Tory politics, personal anecdotes, and private scandal: their dull and deep potations excused the brisk intemperance of youth.” Few professors performed their proper functions. Between 1725 and 1773, no Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge delivered a lecture, although one did achieve notice when he killed himself by falling from his horse in a drunk. But the social amenities were not neglected: Oxford and Cambridge remained fashionable resorts for noblemen’s sons, who sometimes came with their own tutors, servants, and hunting dogs.
Despite all this, the great and ancient universities were far from dead. Sir Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley (of Halley’s Comet), Sir William Blackstone, and Edward Gibbon, among others, were nourished there. Oxford and Cambridge continued to be the museum and the citadel of the nation’s high-culture.
How different was provincial America! Neither the virtues nor the vices of these antique monopolies could be transplanted across the Atlantic. The time-honored English distinction between “college” and “university,” like so many other Old World distinctions, became confused and even ceased to have meaning in America. For one thing, the legal powers of the different colonial governments, especially their powers to create corporations and to establish monopolies, were varied, fluid, and uncertain. Nothing was more fertile than this vagueness of the American legal situation.
According to English law in the colonial period, a group of individuals ordinarily could not act as a legal unit, own property, sue and be sued, nor survive the death of individual members. They could not act as a “corporation” unless they had been granted these privileges by their government. Lord Coke declared the orthodox English doctrine: “None but the King alone can create or make a corporation.” This was the legal theory. There were a few special exceptions (corporations “by prescription” or “at the common law,” and the Bishop of Durham’s power to create corporations in his “county palatine”), but the general power to create a corporation remained one of the most closely hedged prerogatives of government, and many an enterprise hung on the willingness of Crown or Parliament to grant the artificial immortality of a corporate charter.
Who, if anyone, in the American colonies, possessed this important power to create corporations? This proved to be a question with many answers. There were several kinds of colonies—“charter,” “royal,” and “proprietary”—each with a different legal character. The proprietary charters (of Maine, for example) generally contained a “Bishop of Durham clause” giving the English Bishop’s peculiar regal powers to the proprietor. But the explicit delegation to a colonial agency of the right to incorporate was seldom found, and this area became a happy hunting ground for legal metaphysicians. Add to this the many uncertainties over the relative legal powers of colonial governors versus colonial legislatures and of all the colonial governments as against the powers in London. On this uncharted legal terrain many disorderly, inconsistent, and unpredictable institutions sprouted.
The first American college was set up in a typically American legal haze. The founding of Harvard is now generally dated from 1636, when the General Court of Massachusetts appropriated four hundred pounds “towards a schoale or college,” but its legal structure and the extent of its authority could hardly have been vaguer. Harvard actually granted its first degrees in 1642, although by that time the college had received from nobody the legal authority to grant a degree; it had not even been legally incorporated. When the college finally received a charter from the Massachusetts General Court in 1650, there was still no mention of degrees, perhaps because of uncertainty over the General Court’s own authority to confer the degree-granting power. The boldest act of Henry Dunster, the first vigorous President of Harvard College (1640-1654), was to confer any degrees at all. As Samuel Eliot Morison explains, this was “almost a declaration of independence from King Charles.” Even the legislative charter of 1650 seemed so insecure legally that when Increase Mather was in England after the Revolution of 1688 he tried, though unsuccessfully, to secure a special Crown charter. The legal foundations of Harvard, the origins of its authority to grant degrees, and the question of whether, and in what legal sense, if at all, it is properly a “college” or a University”—all these have remained uncertain and unresolved into the 20th century. From the beginning, the President and Fellows exploited this uncertainty, and exercised any convenient powers.
Yale came into being at a time when the legal foundations of Harvard, which had already been prospering and granting degrees for nearly sixty years, seemed most shaky. Harvard’s special legal problems had been compounded, of course, by the insecurity of the charter of Massachusetts Bay Colony; obviously no secure legal rights could be derived from a colonial government which itself might be unlegal. Who could hope to satisfy the General Court, the Governor, and the changing English government, while respecting ancient forms of English law and duly regarding colonial convenience? There was the further slippery question of whether a colony which overstepped its legal authority, say by incorporating a college or university when it actually possessed no such power, might not be violating its own charter. Such a violation might invite unfriendly English politicians to challenge the legal existence of the whole colony. During these years neither Massachusetts Bay nor Connecticut lacked enemies back home who would have been delighted to seize such an opportunity. “Not knowing what to doe for fear of overdoing …,” explained Judge Samuel Sewall and Isaac Addington in 1701 concerning the Act which they drafted to found Yale, “We on purpose, gave the Academie as low a Name as we could that it might better stand in wind and wether; nor daring to incorporat it, lest it should be served with a Writt of Quo-Warranto.” With prudent modesty and ambiguity they decided to call their institution “a collegiate school.” Not until nearly half a century later (1745), after Yale had awarded dozens of degrees, was it formally incorporated.
The history of colonial colleges is one of the most remarkable instances of the triumph of legal practice over theory and of the needs of the community over the abstruse distinctions of professional lawyers. Before the outbreak of the Revolution, at least nine colonial institutions which would survive into the 20th century were already granting degrees. In all of England at this time there were still only two degree-granting institutions, Oxford and Cambridge, whose ancient monopoly was still secured by the neatly-wrought distinctions of lawyers. The oldest American colleges—Harvard, William & Mary, and Yale—all must today find the origin of their legal degree-granting power in what lawyers call “prescription,” that is, in the simple fact that they have been granting degrees for a very long time without being successfully challenged. If the sharp English distinction between a properly-incorporated, degree-granting monopoly called a “university” and all other types of institutions had been successfully transplanted here; if a single royal university had been founded for all the American colonies; or if the power to grant degrees had been clearly and explicitly forbidden in all the colonies, the history of American higher education—and possibly of much else in American culture—might have been very different.
Second: Outside control drew the college into the community.
In 17th-century Europe, and certainly in England, the universities and their colleges were centers for a proud and eminent group of learned men. The medieval clerical tradition had left them a form of academic self-government which remains the pattern in much of Europe to this day. The scholars who gathered round the university, controlling its books, its buildings, its endowments, and its sinecures, were jealous of their powers. To them the universities seemed very much their own. Whatever may have been the effect of all this on “academic freedom,” one plain result was to make universities independent of the community and to isolate the university and the community from each other. This is still expressed in the English antithesis between “town” and “gown.”
The Protestant spirit which pervaded the American colonies was of course congenial to the growth of “lay” (that is non-academic) control. Medieval universities had been ecclesiastical agencies, and their “self-government” had followed simply from the autonomy of the clergy. The Protestant Reformation had given laymen a share in governing their churches; another way of breaking the power of a priestly class was to admit laymen into the government of universities. “Since the Reformation from Popery,” an American author wrote in 1755, “the Notion of the Sanctity of Colleges and other Popish Religious Houses has been exploded…. The Intention herein was not to destroy the Colleges or the Universities, and rob the Muses, but to rescue them from Popish Abuses…. in forming new Universities, and Colleges, the British Nation has perhaps made them a little more pompous, in Compliance with Customs introduced … in Popish Times; which Customs being of long Standing they chose to suffer to continue in them. But the Protestant Princes, and Republicks, and States, in whose Territories there was no University before, had no Regard to any Popish Usages or Customs in erecting Colleges, and Universities, and only endowed them with such Privileges and Powers, and Officers, as were properly School Privileges, Powers and Officers.” In old England, despite Protestantism, university faculties remained entrenched behind their medieval walls. In America there were no such walls.
As we look back on the story now, it seems clear that “lay” control of American colleges owed less to anyone’s wisdom or foresight than to sheer necessity and to America’s nakedness of institutions. While European universities in the 17th and 18th centuries had inherited rich lands, buildings, endowments, governmental appropriations, and intangible resources, the first American colleges were, as Hofstadter and Metzger point out, brand new “artifacts.” They were founded by small communities; lay boards of control helped marshal their limited resources and kept the college in touch with the whole community, without whose support there would have been no college at all.
In Europe the universities had historically been a kind of guild of men of clerical learning. No such guild could exist here for the simple reason that there was no considerable body of learned men. Control of the new institutions inevitably fell to representatives of the community at large. The learned, eminent, or at least aged men who led the faculties of European universities could plausibly claim the power to govern themselves. But at Harvard—where in 1650, President Henry Dunster had just turned forty, his treasurer was twenty-six, and the average age of his “faculty” (then mostly a transient body of students preparing for the ministry) was about twenty-four—the staff of the college could hardly expect to receive deference or power from the surrounding community.
Thus there emerged during the colonial period that pattern of outside control which would permanently characterize American colleges. In the early government of Harvard and of William & Mary there were some signs of the growth of a system of dual control under which the faculty would rule subject to veto by an outside body. But in neither place did such a system last. As early as 1650, Harvard was plainly under the control, not of professors, but of magistrates and ministers, and so it remained. By the mid-18th century, when William & Mary College was flourishing, the gentry had clearly prevailed over the academics.
The prototype of American college government was actually established at Yale and at Princeton, where representatives of the community were organized in a single board of trustees which legally owned and effectively controlled the institution. These trustees were not members of the faculty; they were ministers, magistrates, lawyers, physicians, or merchants. American colleges would not be self-governing guilds of the learned.
Outside control incidentally produced another institution: the American college president. Under the ancient European system where the fellows of a college or the faculty of a university governed themselves and were supported by ancient endowment or clerical livings, there had been no place for such an officer. But the American system of college government by outsiders created a new need. The trustees were often absentees, with neither the time nor the inclination to govern; the college teachers who were on the spot were often youthful and transient. Into this power vacuum came the college president. He alone represented both the faculty and the public, for he was a member of the governing board who resided at the college. Technically an employee of the trustees, he was usually the best informed of them and so became their leader. As the principal member of the faculty he came to speak for them too. Upon his promotional ability depended the reputation or even the very existence of the institution. He combined the academic and the man of business; he was supposed to apply learning to current affairs and to use business judgment for the world of learning. With no counterpart in the Old World, he was the living symbol of the breakdown of the cloistered walls.